John Cecil Smith
1878 - 1961
John Cecil Smith was born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England in 1878 and moved with his family to the Comox Valley in 1887. His father Horace "Dude" Smith owned a Cheese factory in Derbyshire but financial difficulties convinced the family to emigrate and soon after arriving they bought land in Black Creek.
Smith learned his tracking skills at an early age when he had to track missing cattle in the bush after they strayed from the unfenced farm and at the age of fourteen he shot his first cougar. Cougars and wolves were a frequent menace to livestock and many farmers didn't have the time to track and kill the predators so when they heard of Smith's success it wasn't long before he was on call 24 hours a day to deal with the marauding cats. At the time, the province paid a $5 bounty for the cats. By the time Smith was twenty, big game hunters were offering Smith money to guide them. It was a letter addressed to 'Cougar' Smith of Vancouver Island from a noted Austrian hunter that gave him the nickname which was to stay with him for the next sixty-three years. As a bounty hunter, he is officially credited with over six hundred big cats but that figure is probably closer to one thousand cougar.
Hamilton Mack-Laing, a noted naturalist and friend of Smiths wrote: "To cougar hunt in the forest of Vancouver Island, a person must combine the traveling prowess of a bull moose, the back packing stamina of a burro and the scout craft of a leather-stocking. 'Cougar' Smith is the best panther hunter on earth!"
Another friend and writer, Roderick Haig-Brown, spent a winter hunting with Smith to gather background for his novel Panther. "My impression," he said, "was that the dogs didn't lead Smith to the cougar he led them. As a woodsman, he was in a class of his own." He also wrote: "Cecil Smith is the greatest of all panther hunters," and later adds, " his perfect companionship in the woods, under all sorts of conditions, has made learning (about panthers) a very pleasant task."
Smith supplemented his hunting and guiding income by farming, logging and working as a fisheries inspector. In 1910, he began hunting full time and from the end of the First World War until 1939, he was paid by the provincial game department to hunt cougar, wolves and bears.
Although Smith hunted and guided in the foothills of Vancouver Island he occasionally did venture into the higher mountains. In 1926 he accompanied Clinton Wood on a trip up Mount Albert Edward. Using horses they left the town of Bevan on the Puntledge River and rode up and over Mount Becher to John Brown's cabin near Circle (Circlet) Lake summiting the mountain the next day.
A journalist interviewed Smith in 1937 and wrote: " he doesn't look the part of a varmint slayer . A milder mannered, gentler soul than 'Cougar' Smith never strolled through a forest or ran a marauding cougar to his doom."
In 1906 Smith married Mary Emily Pidcock and settled in Oyster River, just south of Campbell River where they had five children. Mary passed away in 1936 and Smith remarried in 1942 to Elinor "Nora" Swain. He was to tell her that 'British Columbia had more cougars than bees.' They moved to Campbell River and as the years rolled on Smith gradually gave up strenuous cougar hunting and became known as one of the better tyee guides of the Tyee Club of British Columbia. He seemed to know where the big fish lurked.
It appeared as though no matter what he undertook he excelled at and after the guiding he took up gardening. Smith's long time friend Eric Sismey said: "His flowers and vegetables seemed larger and brighter, his raspberries, carrots, peas and all else seemed a bit bigger, a bit sweeter and more tender than others grew."
"Cougar" Smith died on August 9, 1961, at the age of eighty-three
in Campbell River and as Eric Sismey wrote: "Smith was one of the
fast disappearing tribe of old-timers, cast in a mould that does not seem
to be used any more."
Hughes, Ben. "Spirits Walked In The Night." Daily Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (January 6, 1957.) p. 13.
Hughes, Ben. "Island Wolves Are Killers." Daily Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (January 13, 1957.) p. 13.
Hughes, Ben. "When The Bear Charged." Daily Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (January 20, 1957.) p. 14.
Sismey, Eric. "The Great Guide Called Him Home." Daily Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (December 17, 1961.) p. 3.
Hagen, Judy. "1000 Cats To His Credit." Comox Valley Record. [Courtenay, B.C.] (August 26, 1994.) p. 30 & 31.
Wild, Paula. "Cougar Smith Earned His Nickname." Times Colonist. [Victoria, B.C.] (June 30, 2002.) p. C11.
Swain-Smith, Elinor. The Nines Lives of Cougar Smith. Unpublished paper.